Tana Toraja is the sort of place you read about in National Geographic, the sort of place that fascinates and inspires, but which you never think you’ll get to see. But I am lucky enough to live on the same island as this cultural treasure, and so when I had a week off from school because of testing, I decided to take a few days to head south and explore.
The most popular way to get to Tana Toraja is to take a bus from Makassar, and so after spending a day in the capital of South Sulawesi, I hopped on a night bus to Tana Toraja. (The nicer buses to Rantepau, the town I used as a base for my exploring, are rather nice, so I decided to splurge on a night bus rather than paying for an extra night in a hotel.)
I arrived in Rantepau just as the sun was rising, and already I was in awe of the tong-konan, or traditional houses, that dominate the landscape. These houses are built and meticulously cared for by the families they belong to, and apparently can never be sold. At the entrance of each house is a tower of buffalo horns, reflecting the status of the family that resides within—the more buffalo horns, the higher the status. The roofs curve upwards at either end, jutting out against the blue sky and challenging anyone who sees them to not stand in awe. On the older houses these roofs are thatched, but tin roofs—some painted a brick red, others a shiny aluminum color that reflects the sky—are more popular for the newer houses. It didn’t matter how many houses I passed, either on foot or on motorbike, I was dumbstruck by their beauty and detail every time.
In Tana Toraja, life revolves around the dead, and it is the complex funeral ceremonies that attract so many tourists to the area. Though I was not in Tana Toraja during the peak funeral season (which happens in July and August, and which is also the peak tourist season), and though I chose to go without a guide (I joined a group of other fabulous backpackers who were going about on motorbike instead), I did catch the end of one funeral. Dozens of pigs and water buffalo, bought by the family and brought by friends, are sacrificed during the funeral (it is believed the dead can take this food with them to the next life), and family and guests arrive in the beautiful traditional beading and weaving that makes up the traditional dress of the area. These funeral ceremonies go back centuries, reminiscent of a time when the Torajan people worshiped the god of their ancestors. Though Christianity has since been (quite forcibly) brought to the area, and is now the dominant religion in the area, some traditions have survived.
The animals sacrificed at these funerals, though sometimes bought directly from the families that raise them, are more often purchased at Pasar Bolu, the main market in Rantepau. Though this market runs every day, it only runs at full capacity every six days. I was lucky enough that my second day in Toraja was one of those days, and I was able to wander through the many rows of stalls selling everything from souvenirs to toothbrushes, as well as the area where the water buffalo were sold.
It was a sea of kerbau (buffalo)—far more animals in one place than I have ever seen before in Indonesia—and some of the farmers were more than happy to chat with me (thank heavens for my rudimentary Indonesian skills) about the various prices most animals go for. Even a young animal, not yet a year old, can easily be sold for 800 U.S. dollars, while adults are sold for well over a thousand, and the rare, very sought-after albino buffalo can go for about the same cost as a used car.
Perhaps even more impressive than the funerals are the graves themselves, which are carved out of solid rock, and then enclosed with elaborate wooden doors. Photographs and other objects are found outside every grave, and the graves themselves can be found almost anywhere there is stone.
Perhaps one of my favorite sites was what is apparently the oldest grave site in Tana Toraja. Tucked back in a bit of jungle, many of the doors of the graves are rotting away and falling, which means the forest floor below is littered with wooden remains, along with a few skulls that are displayed at bottom of the ravine (which we were able to reach with the help of a particularly graceful Ibu). Though the grave site is certainly less glamourous than it probably was in its prime, there is something about it that seems to epitomize the endurance of the Torajan culture, and that is beautiful.
I am a bit of a fabric geek, and I am especially fond of the various fabrics found around Indonesia. In Toraja, it is weaving that creates the traditional fabric. While in a weaving village (which I have a funny suspicion has been created solely for the benefit of tourists, but was still lovely), I talked to one of the women making fabric there, and she explained the various iconography that is often seen in Torajan fabrics. Water buffalo and people are especially common, and to a lesser degree the sort of fresh-water eels that are found in the rice paddies, but the most important symbol is the eye. While it sometimes is very recognizably an eye, often this symbol is merely a diamond incorporated into the pattern somewhere. According to the woman I spoke with, the eye must be included in any piece created in Toraja, and the idea is that when Torajan people meet somewhere outside of Toraja, they will, with the help of the eye, be able to see and recognize someone of their own people, and know that they are of one family.
Beyond the magical qualities of the culture that prevails, the area itself is simply magnificent. From the back of a motorbike, weaving in and out of the jungle and the rice fields, it is easy to fall in love with Tana Toraja. I was only there for a little over thirty-six hours, and I know I did.